Scientists have discovered that the wax moth larvae absolutely loves eating a common plastic and turns it into a useful compound. This plastic — polyethylene — is widely used for packaging and makes up about two-fifths of the plastic products. So, this caterpillar could be a powerful ally to help us reduce the huge amount of plastic waste human produce every year.
The findings of the research from Cambridge University reveal that the larvae of the wax moth, which eats wax in bee hives, can also degrade some type of plastic.
Plastic is the product of fossil fuels and falls into 2 main categories: polyethylene and polypropylene. Only 10% is recycled. The remaining 90% is burned for energy (15%) and 75% ends up in landfills. Unfortunately, these plastics don’t biodegrade easily in landfills and very often invade our oceans, threatening marine wildlife.
Polyethylene takes years to break down, but 100 little wax worms can digest a commercial shopping bag in about 12 hours. It is not clear yet if the ability to break down plastic is due to the wax worm itself or to the bacteria in its gut.
Why this caterpillar is able to break down this tough plastic may lie in the ecology of the wax worm itself. It normally lives in beehives and feeds on beeswax which is chemically similar to plastic. “The larvae have evolved to be able to break down the beeswax, and can break down plastic as well, given the chemical similarity.”
“In the long term we’d like to use this as a basis for breaking down waste polyethylene — but there are many hurdles to be overcome in scaling the process up,” Howe said. “We would probably try to find the genes for the enzymes that are responsible, and use the gene to make lots of the enzyme in a biotechnological process rather than growing large numbers of the caterpillars.”
Now, scientists will have to find an amphibian creature able to eat away all the various wastes that are already swimming in our rivers, streams, and oceans.